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Kapuscinski Is Dead?

Brilliant journalist took no notes, conveyed the truth.

By Shefa Siegel 24 Jan 2007 |

Shefa Siegel is a writer, environmental consultant for the United Nations Industrial Development Organization and doctoral student at the University of British Columbia. He lives in Victoria.

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Ryszard Kapuscinski: Man with a mission

Last month I was travelling Nicaragua with two Polish friends. As new friends do, we were fumbling for things to talk about, points of commonality, shared interests. "Shefa loves Kapuscinski," one told the other. An approving look. "But Kapuscinski," the friend asked, "he is dead?" I shook my head vigorously no, insisting he had a new book waiting to be published in English. Later, when I returned to Vancouver, I opened talks with the owner of a bookstore to bring the Polish travel writer for a signing once the book was published. "I must meet him," I told the storeowner.

Now the press agencies are reporting that in fact it is true, that Ryszard Kapuscinski has died at the age of 74, supposedly after a long illness. I gather there is much afoot in the world at the moment. Bombs in Baghdad, nukes in Tehran, the Democrats on the march; all the front page stories to which I have become immune in six long years of global insanity; six years in which I feel like I have been holding my breath, waiting to live. But the death of Kapuscinski makes me cry out to the walls of my empty apartment. This is news. This is sadness. This is a loss, a man I knew only from the six or seven books of his that are translated to English, and somebody who clearly never waited to live, nor for his life to begin.

For Kapuscinski was no mere travel writer, no mundane reporter. He revived the sagging, inert genre of traveloguing -- a form that had the vitality sapped from it a century ago when the British and American readership commercialized imperialism. Kapuscinski combined two rare attributes: courage and poetry. The obituaries will all record the same impressive resume: that as a reporter he witnessed 27 coups, reported from all over post-colonial Africa in the 1960s, put himself in mortal danger and later wrote books that were well received. But this will explain nothing. For any knee-twitching journalist in Addis Ababa can salivate over the prospects of an imminent war in Somalia, and work over his editor at Reuters to get him on the last flight in before the bombs drop. There is an endless reservoir of humans who derive pleasure from seeing other people cast into man's deepest darkness, and finance this need by reporting the facts from the interior of hotel rooms in war zones.

Risked all

Kapuscinski definitely had the daredevil gene. For no good reason, he would drive sacked roads in war-torn Nigeria to find out exactly who was controlling what areas, and be beaten and have gasoline poured over him before escaping with his life (a story for which his editors berated him by writing him with the curt message, "Ryszard, we must request you stop doing such things"). He definitely had stones. When he was temporarily positioned behind a desk and war broke out in Congo, he finagled a posting to Nigeria, changed the ticket to Cairo, flew to southern Sudan, bought a car, and drove to the Congo without permission, protection or pleasure. (Indeed from this experience he wound up imprisoned and hours from execution.)

For what defined Kapuscinski was not his ability to manage his heart rate, but his reflection, and the poetic attention to words, to understanding people and situations, which no longer exists in any mainstream literary medium. The proof of his genius is simply the weight of his books. For example, there are countless sources to read about Ethiopia and Haile Selassie. But look at the footnotes to Michael Ignatieff's reportage from Africa in The Warrior's Honour, and you will see that at the end of it all, he says something to the effect of nothing else claims the mantle of Kapuscinski's rendering of the fall of Selassie in The Emperor. Because in this book about majesty, Kapuscinski took the reader back through the ages, all the way to biblical stories of court intrigues chronicled by the Book of Esther or the feud between David and Saul narrated in the Book of Kings. And the technique was so simple, it is a miracle nobody did it before. He found the former courtiers of Selassie's last days (not a simple task of reporting), then recorded their monologues in their own voices. He let the places and the people he was experiencing and interviewing speak for themselves. Kapuscinski did what journalists were invented to do, which is give humanity to those who are different from ourselves. He was, in the most subtle form possible, an emissary for peace and for justice in the world.

Portrait maker

For his techniques, there are some who called Kapuscinski a liar (as a journalist from National Geographic told me colleagues of his believed). Indeed, he willingly admitted he did not take notes, that he believed any form of recording changed what people said. But, he explained, in the words that each person delivers, there is a unifying theme, a core idea, a trope to which Kapuscinski honed his attention. And it was this essence he later recorded from the relative quiet of his hotel room. But this is simply where Kapuscinski transformed reportage from a mediocre professional skill to a fine art. His goal was truth, not facts; he drew portraits rather than assessments; in many cases, his canvas was himself.

And much of the time he was so bang on it hurts as an aspiring writer to see how good somebody can be. When I was travelling parts of Africa as a UN consultant, and struggling with the feeling of having somehow been separated from reality, it was Kapuscinski who illuminated for me why I felt this way. "People from the United Nations form a club unto themselves," he commented in The Soccer War. "Many of them are pretentious: they look on everything and everyone from a global perspective, which means, simply, that they look down. They repeat the word 'global' in every sentence, which makes it difficult to settle everyday human problems with them."

Kapuscinski seemed to look down on no one, and was at his best with everyday problems, like when the truck he was being transported by broke down in the middle of Mauritania's desert. Africa was his first and only love. This is so clear from his collection of essays Shadow of the Sun, and a book of war reportage from Angola called Another Day of Life. Maybe it was the times, those early post-colonial days when a coup or revolution could break out at any moment, but Kapuscinski also clearly loved something about the contradictions of a continent at once so broken and so whole. He loved its austerity and its joy just beneath the surface. He did not care so much for Latin America, where he reported for five years, satirizing its "baroque" sensibilities. Everything in Latin America has to be the biggest, he wrote. If it has a river it is the longest, a mountain it is the tallest (he never did seem to report from Asia!), the plains the widest, a forest the biggest. He was not afraid to criticize or to love, all of which opened Kapuscinski to criticism, and even a certain kind of obscurity.

For although those who know him really know him, even my Polish friends knew him only because he had become something of a Polish celebrity by that point, coming as the special guest of an event where a statue was unveiled for a Polish traveller who cycled around Africa. This is to say, they were not terribly familiar with his books, much less his mission. And this is the key point about Kapuscinski, with whom I am obviously in love, passionate and partial: he possessed a profound sense of mission.

Towards peace through understanding

He admitted as much in an interview given to Charlie Rose some years ago, saying he had made a conscious decision to concentrate on history in the making rather than the history of the past, and that he felt a compulsive need to explain things to people with the hope that the deeper we know each other, the more peaceful humans will be.

This mission was more delicately wrapped in an essay he wrote years ago for Granta, which was later republished and used as the fulcrum for The Soccer War, called in various forms something like "High time I started writing the next book." In this essay, he highlights all the things he means to write about -- a form which serves as the file I now keep called, simply, "The Book I Mean to Write" -- if only he had time. "I would write a dictionary describing how different words take on different meanings depending on where they are spoken in the world," Kapuscinski writes. "I would write about the time I was sent to Latin America, but didn't really like it. I would write about how hard it is for a northerner to survive in the tropics, or what it feels like to hide in a hotel room when all white men are being rounded up on the streets, or the experience of being in motion so often, flying, stewardesses, passports, hotels, typewriters, loneliness. I would write about all this, if only things didn't keep coming up. If only the world would calm down for a moment. If only I could take a break from my deepest sense of mission."

A conviction so deep it becomes a mission is so rare for non-ideologues, zealots or fanatics, that Kapuscinski deserves praise, and respect, memorializing and dedications for holding so stoically to his own purpose throughout his life. His words alone will survive him. That is something. But more than his words a writer wants to be remembered for his ideas, which have a way of seeping into the world, and becoming part of the collective unconscious long after, in fact only after their bodies have passed and just their lines remain. To feel such gratitude and warmth for a person I only think I know, when in fact all I know are his words, is a testament to the righteousness of Kapuscinski's core idea, that the more the lives of others are explained to us, the less likely we are to fight. This is to say, the more likely we are to love. This is a tribute not only to Kapuscinski himself, but also to everyone who feels the inexplicable humanistic drive to put thought to order, apply meaning to language, give life to words.

"You must choose your words carefully," Kapuscinski said, "because there are so many of them in the world." It is a reassurance that the humanistic will is still alive in humanity, no matter how troubled, corrupt, or infuriating; no matter how desperately we need the world to become calmer, so that we can release our clenched teeth, and remember what it is like to breathe again.  [Tyee]